Should you scold your warrior-princess because she keeps turning her subordinates into frogs and you think it is a bit extreme as far as disciplinary measures go, or should you praise her because she just survived being double-teamed by enemy mechs without any squad support?

This is The Princess Guide in a nutshell, a game that splits its time between the zany anime stylings of magical-fantasy storytelling and real-time mission-based action gameplay. Don’t let the cutesy name and art style fool you: The Princess Guide places systems within systems to form layers of complexity which pose a steep learning curve for the player. That is, when you’re not enjoying a story scene where Princess Liliarte jokes about eating a whole cow or Princess Alpana is hoping you think her tail is cute.

The overall gameplay loop consists of moving Commander units across an overworld to reach Missions or encounter enemy units along the way. Once those missions or enemies are reached, the battle begins – an overhead, real-time fight that might take 15 seconds against a couple of monsters or last a few minutes and require navigating through a hostile landscape. As missions are completed, your units strengthen and the plot advances until the problems of the Kingdom have been solved. Those familiar with titles like Final Fantasy Tactics Advance will slip into the overworld stuff smoothly, albeit with hack-and-slash gameplay interspersed instead of turn-based action.

Each princess has their own story, and the game begins by letting the player pick which princess to begin helping. You will eventually get to play through the plotline for each princess, as the player takes the part of a “Master” knight who teaches and guides each young lady through their trials.

The most overt way this is accomplished is through the 'Praise-or-Scold' mechanic. At a key point or two in the story, the player must Praise or Scold the princess for something they have done, and thus affect their reaction to the plot point. Even more directly, whenever the Princess is the Commander for a mission, up to three times within the duration the player can Praise or Scold them. Doing so advances a progress bar (more of a progress pie chart, really) toward earning permanent new skills and status bonuses for that Princess, shaping what sort of Commander they are; in addition, a boost is provided for the rest of the mission, such as increased movement speed or attack power.

It should be said: Yes, there is a certain relational component to these interactions, and the Princess characters hone in on some dominance/submission themes in their characterizations. However, any actual sexuality going on is more implied than overt. This is no dating sim, and the most sensual visual would have to be when a villager character shows up with a comically generous cleavage.

Somewhere at the core of The Princess Guide is a winning formula; gradually build your stats and weapon strengths in order to hack and slash your way through missions to progress a fantastical plot delivered in a cheeky, lighthearted fashion with anime visuals and Japanese voicework subtitled in English.

However, player progress in Princess Guide is not content to merely be stifled by progressive enemy difficulty alone. Instead, whether due to translation miscues or taking too much design influence from some mobile-gaming trends, player-reward is often delayed, obfuscated, or barred altogether. This starts in little, subtle ways that are compounded by other mechanics. For example, if you fail a mission, you are given the option to either “Restart Mission” or “Retry.” One of these choices will bring you back to the overworld map, and the other will start the mission over. Can you guess which one?

You won’t know until you go through the trial-and-error attempt necessary to figure it out – and unfortunately, much of the game is like this, giving the player a learning curve from unnecessary complexity. You can level-up your own character commander’s stats and passive abilities in a straightforward menu based on experience points earned in battles. But your Princess commander’s menu for stat-boosting lists traits like Spirit, Wisdom, Moral, and Faith. What do these mean? What gameplay difference do they make? It has something to do with using the ‘right’ Materia equipped and Praise/Scold combinations to unlock more Materia options which in turn affect the Princess’s stats and passive abilities, but why can’t this be as straightforward as it is with your player-character?

Your attack and defence ratings are heavily influenced by weapon items. Every commander – whether your player-character or the current Princess of the world or one of the generic commanders you can recruit (you can recruit up to four additional commanders besides your player-character and the Princess, but only four commanders can be on the map at one time) – has a Weapon equipped. You can upgrade these weapons if you have enough gold and the right Materia learned (we think). But you can’t upgrade a weapon while one of your commanders has it equipped, and you can’t equip or un-equip weapons unless you 'withdraw' the commander from the map.

This means that if you want to upgrade a weapon and use it, you have to figure out which commander has the weapon equipped. Select that commander on the overworld and Withdraw them from the map. Go through the “Base Menu” to the menu for upgrading weapons. Buy the weapon upgrade from the menu. Go back to the menu for equipping weapons. Select the weaponless commander and scroll all the way down the list of weapons to find the one you just upgraded, then equip it. But, wait: If you want to use the commander on the map, now there’s a cooldown timer. Withdrawn commanders can’t re-enter the fray until five in-game “hours” have passed. Is there really a good design reason for this, beyond artificially inflating session length? Would it really be so bad to let the player upgrade weapons while they’re equipped, and not wait through in-game time to be able to use it?

The opening of the game introduces all the combat mechanics. You have a basic, light attack with the Y button. You have another attack with the A button, that has a cooldown timer and special effects like pushing foes away or a projectile or poison effect, etc. Pressing A and Y together performs another attack variant. You can press the X button to attack with your Units (oh, right, every commander has Units, you can recruit different ones from a menu, they gain experience independently and have their own stats, and apparently if you hold down L you can assign different tactical strategies during battle, but only if your current board state has reached a certain “Dominance” percentage, the calculus for which is never explained and often doesn’t seem to match what’s going on, and this is definitely exhausting and unfun to read about, right?). Or you can press the R button to switch to a mode where you use your commander’s X attack instead of the units’, and the units function independently.

Oh, and there are also Relics scattered across the battlefield, which are like sentry enemies that do you harm until you hold the A button down while you’re near them in order to take them over, which then makes them an ally that can be used with further presses of the A button, and apparently if you want to unlock certain Materia you will need to keep doing this to an adequate variety of Relics.

Which is all to say: The game quickly makes it clear that you are in control of many varieties of attack strategies but never does the player the favour of explaining any of it, except through tiresome trial and error. This is all introduced to the player in a very “X does Y” format without fleshing out any context for why you should ever choose a light attack over a different one, and so on. While there is plenty of healthy room for discussion on just how much hand-holding a game should do for the player, it says something that The Princess Guide has the foresight to make this initial Battle Tutorial available at any time from the game menu, yet never expounds on its function.

For example, you can go through the entire game without ever bothering to explore the minutiae behind how to best command your units, and are never given any real incentive to. There is no information on how the Princesses or commanders work in terms of what basic attacks they have and how different each attack is, besides trying them out (and besides weapon descriptions). There is no information on why you should time your Praise and Scold actions in any particular manner, rather than just burn through your limit of three per battle right away when it starts, as you still get the Materia EXP bonus for doing so. But even if you build up lots of Materia to train your Princess on, there’s a “capacity” limit to how much she can learn at once, which seems like yet another player-unfriendly design choice.

There’s a thing called Virtual Training for each Princess, unlocked with enough Materia learning, which launches a 16-bit minigame; if played successfully, this unlocks additional possible items found in treasure chests found either in static positions or by chance when defeating enemies, which are also the only way to get better weapons by cheer drop chance. It’s a bizarrely small, nuanced benefit to derive from what is one of the most charming features in the entire game.

There’s a lot to keep track of in The Princess Guide, and it doesn’t help that the game lets the player down entirely at some points. The little arrow that’s supposed to guide the player toward the next mission objective often doesn’t work correctly. The “Game Help” menu option would only load the same tip about Knowledge Materia for us, regardless of how far into the game we were. But perhaps most egregiously, the game has no autosave. You have to manually save from the menu, which means losing progress if you ever encounter a software error, which happened to us twice in our 10-hour playthrough.

Maybe some players enjoy the sensation of diving into deep waters right away and trying not to drown. The Princess Guide shoots itself in the foot, however, by pulling the player through a learning process that, ironically, only ends up teaching them just how puzzling the design choices are. By fighting against the game’s own functionalities as much as the in-universe enemies, you end up with a takeaway that the strangest thing about The Princess Guide might be that it actually does manage to be fun at all sometimes. When you’re mindlessly hacking away through enemy forces and earning a funny story interlude, it’s not so bad. We’re just not sure it’s worth labouring through the learning pains to reach a weak chuckle as a payoff.

Conclusion

When it’s firing on all cylinders, The Princess Guide is a somewhat deep, satisfying action game with vibrant visuals and humorous, whimsical storytelling. Unfortunately, it’s bogged down by trying to shove overengineered combat through a thick UX fog. After yet another “mission” that consists of moving on the map to intercept three enemy skirmishes to completion, a reasonable player might wonder: Is it worth $40 to praise-or-scold each Princess through a couple of hours of sword-swinging? This quirky game may meet the particular sensibilities of some, but others should probably pass on this one.